When a Leader is Corrupt

There is speculation in the news today about the leader of one of the big Christian outreach organisations. It looks as if the leader did dodgy things with young men, which if proven, I guess will negatively impact the organisation. My question to you is: Does the moral life of a leader affect their past work?

At college, we have read the work of many theologians, and more than you might expect, were involved in some sort of dodgy sexual behaviour. They either assaulted their students, or were unfaithful to their wives, or were accused of abuse. This is not a current a thing—I’m talking about centuries ago. Some of the theology still taught today, was first introduced by men (it was always men in the olden days) who were later accused of improper behaviour. Does it matter? And why?

More recently, we studied the work of John Yoder, who taught about servanthood, and following Jesus’ example in caring for the downtrodden and oppressed.[1] All good stuff. But then, it was discovered Yoder had sexually harassed more than a hundred women. Do we ignore this? Absolutely not. Do we ignore his teaching? That is the tricky part—because what he taught was good. (Not all of it, but much of what he said was good.)


The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (Image taken from internet, so more a sketch than a painting, but you get the idea.)

Today, we were studying theology in art, and we read a book by Henri Nouwen,[2] who was deeply affected by Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. As he sat and stared at the painting, Nouwen was emotionally touched, and through the painting he drew closer to God, understanding God’s love in a whole new way. So is the painting good? Undoubtedly. Therefore does God use the work of Rembrandt to further his kingdom? It would seem so. Was Rembrandt a good chap? Well, he wasn’t exactly faithful to his wife and seems to have had a complicated sex life! But does the life of the man nullify his work?

If you look at the work of Aimee Semple McPherson, you become even more conflicted. This was a woman who attracted a huge following in Los Angeles, built a temple and a radio station and took Pentecostal spirituality to masses of people. Did she preach the message of God? Yes, and hundreds of people were touched by the message and grew closer to God as a result of her work. Does her ministry sometimes resemble a religion of her own? Yes—and she was accused of some dodgy stuff in her personal life too. But again, does the woman nullify the work?

My own view is very conflicted. Personally, if I felt a leader/minister/vicar was morally suspect, I would not feel able to work with them. Anyone who lies to their spouse is unlikely to be honest to their congregation. I think the integrity of a person’s life matters, and TV evangelists who seem more interested in earning high salaries, or famous preachers with massive egos, are not people who I trust. And yet, contrary to all that, I notice that sometimes, God uses those people to further his kingdom.[3]

What if…a psychopath managed to do something good. Can psychopathy ever be a strength?

The life of the speaker does not always nullify the message. Sometimes, God uses the narcissist, the psychopath, the egotist. Maybe starting a new organisation, ‘thinking big’ and not being distracted by all the potential problems, needs a certain personality. And maybe those personalities are more likely than most of us to then screw up spectacularly—because we all mess up, and someone who does big things maybe messes up more. I guess the essence is this: God can use anyone, good or weak, and God’s work is always good. But the extent to which a leader’s failings then nullify their work—this I don’t know. It’s a tricky one.

This is an important point for those who have suffered abuse. I imagine that when you see good work being done, then you would worry about threatening that by bringing an accusation against the leader. Yet clearly, looking at the past, this should not be a factor. The work of God continues, people are helped, even when/if the leader is removed. A dodgy leader should always be removed, otherwise the cycle of hurt continues—amazingly, it seems that this doesn’t mean the cycle of their work stops.

Thanks for reading.
Hope you have a good week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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[1] Samuel Wells, Introducing Christian Ethics, (Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, 2017) p. 222.

[2] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994).

[3] This theme was explored in Clara, A Good Psychopath?

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